The Missing European Dimension of Germany’s Zeitenwende: A View from France
There is a growing assessment in Paris that Germany’s Zeitenwende has not yet delivered much on defense and, furthermore, that it has failed to generate momentum for a renewed Franco-German relationship on defense.
When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered the now famous Zeitenwende speech to the Bundestag on February 27, 2022, his recognition of a “watershed moment” was widely perceived as a turning point in German foreign and security policy, a long awaited moment when Germany would at last face up to a radically transformed security environment and start acting more strategically and stop behaving like an herbivore in world of carnivores. Beyond the essential recognition that some major principles of German foreign policy needed to be fundamentally reassessed, the key announcement of a new defense export policy and a €100 billion fund to address military shortfalls and move Germany closer to the NATO 2 percent target appeared as the most concrete signal of a radical transformation of German security policy.
This moment was long-awaited by Germany’s partners, France included. For a decade or more, key geopolitical events ranging from the annexation of Crimea to the major terrorist attacks on European soil seemed to have had only a limited impact on German foreign and defense policy, generating frustration amongst Germany’s allies and friends. Defense spending remained essentially flat, Germany was reluctant to review its commitment to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and kept hoping it could maintain a mutually profitable relationship with President Vladmir Putin’s Russia. Germany was often described and to a point caricatured as a free-riding ally, refusing to pull its weight in the geopolitical space, an “Exportnation” focused on trade and ignoring the realities of a degraded security environment. These criticisms, quite common in Paris, were of course—to a degree—unfair, Germany having moved more than many had recognized through its military commitment in Afghanistan and Africa, its modest increase in defense spending under US pressure, and its incremental review of its Russia policy, but the frustration with Berlin’s strategic posture remained a feature of the debate in Washington, London, Warsaw, and Paris.
In this context, the German Zeitenwende was perceived as essentially good news, providing a long-awaited response to Germany’s reluctance to play a larger role and a 180-degree turn on a series of past policies that had frustrated the closest partners of Germany, starting with Paris. However, in articles in French newspapers marking the first anniversary of Chancellor Scholz’ accession to power in December, the assessment in Paris was more mixed. Le Monde had an article with the headline: “The incomplete moult of Chancellor Olaf Scholz” while Le Figaro pointed to the “laborious first year of Olaf Scholz.” Both newspapers highlighted some of the limits of the Zeitenwende as a policy, echoing criticism in French policy circles. Ultimately and seen from Paris, the Zeitenwende, which should have been a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring French and German views closer, seems to have had the immediate opposite effect and has generated a new and different form of skepticism that probably echoes the relatively low point in Franco-German relations.
On Defense, Could Do Better and Be More European
Alongside the U-turn on Russia policy, the decision to reinvest in defense was rightly noted as a major shift in the Zeitenwende speech. The full commitment to reach the NATO 2 percent of GDP spent on defense and the historic decision to set up an extraordinary €100 billion fund allocated to the modernization of the German armed forces was in many respects historic. It marked the end of three decades of decline in defense spending and is meant to address the numerous and well-identified challenges the Bundeswehr is facing.
From a French perspective, this should have been perceived as brilliant news. Finally, Germany seemed ready to do the right thing on defense, coming closer to the French approach to foreign policy, which fully recognizes the role of the military and invests in proper capabilities. It nevertheless quickly caused some doubts and criticism in Paris in three areas: An initial concern over the potential imbalance in a domain where France had a traditional leadership, a concern about the allocation of the defense fund, which quickly appeared to focus on the off-the-shelf acquisition of primarily US equipment, and, as time passed, doubts about the reality of the shift.
Coming primarily from the defense community, the initial concern about Germany potentially leading on defense due to its expanded budget came from a purely mathematical calculus: Germany at 2 percent would outspend the French by €20 billion per year when for decades the French defense budget had traditionally bigger than the German one. This potential new imbalance, which still needs to be confirmed over the long term (see below), generated some anxiety in Paris about the consequences of Germany leading in defense in Europe when this was traditionally the French domain of excellence. These concerns have partially disappeared since February as Germany is struggling to meet its objectives and since France announced its own significantly increased defense effort in January 2023. Moreover, the French expert community continues to point to the larger concern about a reluctant Germany on defense compared to a Germany potentially leading on defense.
The second line of criticism focused on the decisions associated with the use of the €100 billion fund. Germany’s time-constrained choice to focus on off-the-shelf acquisition primarily from the United States generated intense concerns in Paris as it is perceived to undercut a number of major Franco-German/European initiatives. Ever before the Zeitenwende, the June 2021 decision to acquire the Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircraft versus the development of a Franco-German plane by 2030 under the MAWS (Maritime Airborne Warfare System) project was a first signal of this trend. The subsequent announcement in March 2022 of the decision to acquire up to 35 F-35 aircraft to replace the ageing Tornado fleet responsible for the nuclear mission generated further concerns in Paris, which saw this as a direct threat to the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System (FCAS) designed to prepare inter alia the next generation of European combat aircraft. The fact that this project was finally fully confirmed over lengthy and painful industrial negotiations over the winter 2022-23 only partially alleviated this concern.
Lastly, the launch by Chancellor Scholz of the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI) in September 2022 triggered further criticism as the initiative focused on German IRIS-T, US Patriot, and Israeli-US Arrow systems when France (and Italy) had been actively promoting the development of a joint European missile defense project. It is not by chance that both countries declined to join the initiative. There are of course good reasons for each of these decisions, primarily associated with the reasonable desire to acquire systems that are immediately available versus investing in long-term complex capability development projects. Nevertheless, and seen from Paris, the accumulation of these decisions, which taken together represent the largest portion of the €100 billion fund, appear to be a series of missed opportunities to promote European solutions to address capability shortfalls when France was pushing for such an approach.
Ultimately, the fact that Germany seems to be struggling to implement its new commitment to spend more on defense tends to create a “much ado about nothing” (or not much) mood in Paris with a growing assessment that, on defense, the Zeitenwende has not delivered that much. Moreover, there remains a sense that it certainly did not generate momentum for a renewed Franco-German defense relationship.
The Zeitenwende and the Franco-German Engine
There is a paradox or a missed Franco-German opportunity about the first year of Zeitenwende. A first sight, it should have brought Berlin and Paris closer: A more strategic Germany should be the partner of choice of France, especially in a post-Brexit European Union. Moreover, both countries are usually well aligned politically when it comes to the handling of the war in Ukraine: Pushing the diplomatic card and hoping for a negotiated settlement beyond what most NATO allies would do, being initially cautious about arms delivery, and reluctant to take any step that could be labelled a “escalatory.” But ultimately, their handling of the crisis has rarely been carried out jointly.
On arms delivery: In spite of a shared cautiousness, Berlin appeared more reluctant to cross certain thresholds as demonstrated in the Leopard debate and preferred to coordinate closely with Washington rather than Paris (and other European allies). For their part, the French are increasingly part of the group of countries pushing Germany to do more by their statements (not ruling out combat aircraft) and actions (announcing the delivery of AMX-10 RC light tanks in the midst of the Leopard debate). Seen from Paris, Berlin’s efforts not only to not “go alone” but to act jointly with the US (on the delivery of the Marders, Patriots, and Leopards) suggests a form of alignment that leaves little room for Franco-German European initiatives.
On the diplomatic front, the spectacular visit to Kyiv on June 16, 2022, when the Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and then Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi joined Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron, marked a breakthrough toward Ukrainian EU candidate status. It is nevertheless striking to note that there were no high-level Franco-German initiatives during the first year of the war in Ukraine, which was rather marked by a low point in the bilateral relationship to the point of postponing a Franco-German summit. The media tend to focus the state of the “couple”—to use the word used in Paris—through the lens of the interpersonal relations between the French president and the German chancellor. These obviously matter and tend to take time to even out; it is however interesting to note that in Paris there is a perception that Chancellor Scholz’ Zeitenwende has very much focused on restoring a solid relationship with Washington (after the difficult Trump years) rather than developing a robust European agenda with Paris.
In contrast with the French political habit, which tends to always add a European layer to major foreign policy initiatives (at the risk of ruffling some feathers amongst its European partners who do not always share the French vision/ambition for the European Union), the European dimension of the Zeitenwende seems quite absent. While the EU was often mentioned in the speech, Berlin did not come forward with spectacular proposals. It took a year and the compulsory moment of the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty celebrations in Paris in January 2023 to see the first ideas emerge on this point. The trilateral engagement with President Zelenskyy in Paris before his visit to Brussels in February 2023, could a be a positive sign of a deliberate effort to act more together and to demonstrate Franco-German leadership. It remains to be seen if, in the long term, if the Zeitenwende also opens a new chapter on the bilateral relationship.
A Complex Journey
Ultimately, France’s views on the Zeitenwende are to a large extent irrelevant (as that of other close partners), Scholz’ speech was primarily an important domestic event and an opportunity for the chancellor, who is a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) to demonstrate a willingness to challenge well-established policies and invite the German public and elites (including his own party) to review and abandon some fundamental pillars of its foreign and security policy. From this perspective, and remarkably for a foreign policy speech, it was primarily targeted at a domestic audience. As Germany embarks on this complex journey and struggles with its efforts to implement the level of transformative ambition enshrined in the speech, it logically largely focuses on the domestic dimension of the debate and the implementation challenges with a portion of the political class and the public opinion still maintaining the illusion of a “back to normal” option.
This raises two last Franco-German paradoxes. First, the Zeitenwende echoes some French foreign policy practices as it offers a solid national assessment of the environment and often takes the form of uncoordinated initiatives guided by German national interest and priorities rather than trying to please close partners. Second, France has not fully recognized the current moment as a Zeitenwende and refuses, rightly or wrongly, to engage in a fundamental reassessment on its own foreign and security policy in light of the new environment, preferring to point to the elements of continuity, noting (rightly) that previous French strategic assessments were often proven right rather than engaging in this form of fundamental review.
Camille Grand is Distinguished Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).